Bout Erwan. On the « Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries ». [Plastik #02 - In vivo, L’artiste en l’œuvre ?], 3 juin 2011, Centre d’études et de recherches en arts plastiques (CERAP) de l’Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne <>. ISSN ISSN 2101-0323.

On the « Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries »

Erwan Bout
Publication date: 3 juin 2011

These are six small paintings, in a portrait format, circumscribed by a white frame and hung on the wall at eye level. Six abstract compositions whose surface in coloured grains, mostly garnet and indigo, sometimes ochre, is structured by circles and arcs. Alignments and intersections seem to respond to formal choices drawn from the universe opened by a century of abstraction. These are six titles, that one latches on to when trying a first reading of these works: Hullabaloo ("racket"), Oblivion (Oblivion, unconsciousness), Theorem, Apsides, Clairvoyance ("Gift of clairvoyance"), Odyssey.

Behind the protective plexiglass one guesses a damp, earthy matter, which gravity makes more dense towards the bottom, while at the top cracks appear. Very fine water droplets emphasise a warmer temperature than expected and their position of a necessary microcirculation of air, perhaps in exchange with the outside. These are all signs that what one sees is, at least in part, by chance and evolved over time.
The conservation of works of art demands aridity, cool and aseptic conditions and a controlled, invariable environment. How can these forms, so well drawn, survive for so long? And how much longer can they survive? What is the meaning of these special conditions?
And what impact does this have on the reading of the works?The overall title is Specimen of Secrecy About Marvelous Discoveries. In this context specimen can suggest the field of experimental science, in particular that of biology. It is in the singular, as if the six pieces do not form an entity. Specimen is etymologically bound to species and Secrecy sounds like secretion but signifies a secret. Marvelous conjures up the marvelous and the magical. Discovery, like in French, can mean both the invention of a treasure and the discovery of a new territory or a scientific success. However, the technical specifications talk neither of paint, nor of mixed techniques but of Biotopes.

In science this term refers to a physical and chemical environment accommodating a set of organisms that inhabit it (which make up the biotic community). Biotope and biological communities are the two components of an ecosystem, that is to say, a biological, physical and chemical system considered according to its invariants, its dependencies and its responsiveness to changes in one of its components. If the author refers to his works as biotopes, it is to insist that his works have their own character to host life and to evolve with it.
During a second visit to these works, a week later, the garnet is less vivid than I had remembered, a crack has widened in Hullabaloo, a new disk is emerging at the periphery of the primary disk in Apsides and there is less micro condensation behind the plexiglass. More generally, each painting does not leave the same impression as before.
The heat and humidity did not destroy the works, since the brilliant purity of circular forms continues to defy the seeming disorder of the environment in which they took shape. These drawings are the result of complex interactions between microorganisms inhabiting these artificial habitats, moving jointly towards optimizing the division of territories and resources (ions, minerals, various organic molecules, water, oxygen for aerobic bacteria).
Resource exchanges are transformed, the flow of air, water, heat, organisms themselves, the result of struggle and ceaseless collaboration. Furthermore, these organisms are probably very sensitive to variations: a large number of viewers will fractionally raise the temperature (one-tenth of a degree is sometimes enough to trigger or inhibit certain chemical reactions), lowering the light (and therefore the energy output of certain photosynthetic bacteria), increasing the level of carbon dioxide (favouring certain organisms while hindering others), even to introduce into their environment foreign bacterias including those from human respiration (which compete with the native bacteria, even supplanting them if there are enough of them and if the environment suits them, so that they have mutated favourably).
They are presented as paintings: both in their presentation and in their composition. They have an individual and a general title. These are all reference points that stimulate in the viewer a habit of pictorial reading. The author invites us to appreciate the formal composition, the colour and material, the balance, the juxtapositions, the weight and strength of shape and line, hierachies, contrasts, hues, textures, painting technique, etc…

And, in looking at the work, the viewer is quite satisfied and it is this which is troubling, when one realises that the composition is not the direct result of human action. Each of these pieces is in a state of constant evolution and it is impossible to guess at their initial conditions. At least the author gives us enough clues to suggest they were similar.
Although they had the same starting point, these six different pieces are presented as six different results. The pictorial reading to which we are invited then changes: the differences from one to another make sense, each image then becomes a version of others, both as an individual (in the sense of an indivisible and singular) and as a representative (in the sense of an entity meeting the criteria of characterisation for a given species).
The individual/representative problems of a species and all the paradoxes that involves are at play here, while maintaining work irreducible with a simple working of the question of identity within a species. Each individual work of the Specimen of Secrecy About Marvelous Discoveries is presented as a living being (as a result of a complex biological and perennial process) irreducible to the specifications that gave birth to it.
Moreover, these original specifications should not be limited to these six specimens. In other words, the choice of the author leads us to experience the significant coexistence of two simultaneous realities, ontologically interdependent but objectifiable only in an independant manner.
À l’échelle des tailles (On a scale of sizes), this work makes us measure the gap between a microscopic reality, invisible to the naked eye, yet which determines and allows us to observe on a human scale. The associations that this provokes naturally invite us to shift this schema so that we can now consider the gap between our visible scale and the macroscopic scale, encompassing the entire human population (or even all mankind, or the whole animal kingdom, or even the entire physical system and biochemical fields). Thanks to these works, we can get an idea of this mediation.
Moreover, our individuality is fragmented, dissipated by the awareness that all entities and all events take place in us at such a small scale1.
With L’échelle des durées (The scale of length of time), the viewer does not see the changes in the exhibited work in one sole visit to the exhibition. It takes several visits to assess the extent of these modifications. The viewer’s habit of looking at the apparent immutability of presented images is confronted by their slow evolution. The viewer has to take into account that he is not seeing traditional or timeless images but events, therefore his relationship to the work acquires a new dimension (like with a Penone2, where the hornbeam growing within a hollow statue gives it for that moment all its value, faced with this work that is doomed to disappear).

What seems slow initially to the viewer becomes much more dynamic when he realises that what is taking place under his eyes are generations of microorganisms; the series of human generations and the changes it causes are a lot less quick. Everything happens as if the author proposed to these living beings that make up his works a series of pictorial tools accompanied by a set of instructions.
The aim is not to get them to create for him, the works would not have the same sense if the image was made by a human hand. But, as a large number of the plastic choices made by the author, we should look at the biological activity of the composition that makes up an image as infléchie (inflected). This then becomes a component of the image.In other words, the author imposes on us a pictorial schema constructed from a codification system (our habits of a spectator of abstract art), that through the reading of it and traversing its variations, we understand a certain biological reality.
What we are witnessing is closer to science, not because it relies on scientific and technical knowledge, but because it is akin to a scientific measurement: an assessment from a norm.
This measured biological reality is not simply the activity of these microorganisms, but more generally the mechanisms of life (evolution, exchanges and struggles, balance) to which we belong, as a result, and as actors. The life that the works speak about corresponds neither to an individual’s journey (from birth to death, or from one generation to another, following an arbitrary path along the branches of a genealogical tree) or background noise (lush, stirring), but rather to a phenomenon, a very complex process for which a global approach is impossible. Each of these characteristics gives it an extra dimension.
Also, to understand it, it is necessary to remove some elements (as one would project a hypercube on to a plane, for example). This work seems an attempt at presenting life differently. The individual and the intergenerational are present in a distant and invariant way (unlike the conventional conception of a single journey), the macroscopic organization is privileged as agitation on a smaller scale (unlike the conception of background noise) and life is placed in perspective when it becomes, in itself, and in its whole, something that is clearly perishable (a distant, obscure concept, even absent in other designs).However, these are not different contingent realities carrying the same name "life" but very different conceptions of the same reality, each constructed through the means of others and being mutually enriching. Upstream there's the empiric conception design that we all form ourselves, on the way the unique conception proposed by the work, and downstream the product of our aesthetic experience of the work.
In 2006, Eduardo Kac created Specimen of Secrecy About Marvelous Discoveries, a work consisiting of six pieces entitled Hullabaloo, Oblivion, Theorem, Apsides, Clairvoyance and Odyssey. It is presented as a series of pieces that seem to be abstract paintings, but are actually produced by the activity of microorganisms for which they form a hospitable habitat.
It is a work that makes sense of the individuation of its parts, which could be reduced to the process that gave them birth. A process itself that is not reducible to these six works. It is an attempt to overcome the limitations posed by the human scale, spatial and temporal. It is part of a transdisciplinary field of thought. While traditional analytical thinking isolates, defines, extracts, recontextualizes, this work is synthetic/associated, exceeding scale, objective of systems.
Such form, such colour, such texture in the composition of such a piece will resist any attempt to reduce it. Its presence will manifest itself in all its individuality, in all its obviousness, in its occupation of the Real at this location and at this time, in all the relationships it will have with its surroundings, immediate and distant. We enjoy then this inability to reduce, this sublime disparity between our immediate experience and our reflective experience, between the real that entirely traverses us, and our intellectual capacities that try to capture the flight. The pleasure of the sublime, i.e., the awareness of the limits of our capacity for understanding the events of the Real involving the design of a reality that exceeds it, does not stop at our material experience of the work. The procedure established by Eduardo Kac is just as real and belongs to the same reality that the works have generated. We do, however, objectify different traits from those we call on to make a material experience of reality. Specifically it is located in particular in the most material reality of Kac’s thoughts, in the state of his neurons, which determine a set of events involving his body and his environment. Subjectively, we build it more from our own mental reference marks and ascribe it with the characteristics of a project on the real.


1 The author of the work cannot have been unaware of the scientist Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene theory. Dawkins’ publications caused upheavals in the representations that had been previously held regarding the living, individuality and even ontological and teleological dimensions of life.
2 Giuseppe Penone, Sentier de charmes, installation in situ Kerguéhennec Park (Morbihan), 1986. Note : the initial tree has changed, following the storms of December 1999.

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